Jessica Sequeira’s playful and innovative novella A Furious Oyster imagines Pablo Neruda’s spirit returning to Santiago in a series of storms. Over the course of the storms, Neruda intervenes in the lives of individuals, leaves behind fragments of consciousness, and also plays games with literary scholars, muddying the waters of his own legacy. Sequeira currently lives in Santiago, Chile, and also works as a translator and essayist.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
In a place where ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ on behalf of the future are prized, in the part of California where I grew up focused around computer science, I’ve always been attracted to the disciplines of reading, writing, translation and history, which in some sense are very traditional.
I don’t think that working as an engineer is dreary, though there is perhaps a bit too much progress for progress’s sake. But in that sense, given my background, the decision to live abroad in Latin America and focus my life around books is not typical.
Other expectations that people have had for me— is that I’d go into academia or become a nun. My mother told me recently that because I liked to be by myself in silence a lot as a child, she thought I’d end up as a Carmelite. Although I respect that life, alas, the convent is not for me.
The idea of rebellion and rupture as inherently good is itself questionable. Parts of my family history in India closed a chapter in the past few years, for example, and made me want want to understand what happened as well as to think about questions of the afterlife, poetry and scientific possibility. Some continuity always exists.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
It was a conscious decision to push against my own tendencies towards abstraction, to try to transform a lot of speculative ideas floating around my head into earthy, sensual, playful fiction.
For me it was also important to think of myself as a writer, in addition to translator. These days it’s fashionable to dismiss the word ‘writer’—people say ‘I write’ or something along those lines—but I think that, for me at least, finding the courage to define what I am doing is a part of doing it. Otherwise people will impose whatever definitions they prefer.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
Beyond the books I’ve worked on, I am generally proud of always being curious, and of trying to explore ideas in different fields. I am also proud of living a little outside my comfort zone. Since Spanish isn’t my native language, spending my days speaking and listening within its rhythms slows me down a bit, in a way that helps me to think.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
Receiving a grant after my final year in university to live in South America, because afterwards I fell in love with the Cono Sur and stayed there.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
Why the devil not? she asks,
in boots and eyeliner.
You think that we’ll rot
and life’ll give you a shiner.
So let’s talk obscure books
and dance in the diner.
Smiling she cracks open
a history of Asia Minor.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
There have been several moments along the way that I’ve followed my heart — by intuition deciding to live somewhere, try my luck with a poetry contest, translate an author like Couve or Wilms Montt not popular outside their own country, abandon a concrete opportunity in order to stay with someone, work on something artistic without remuneration, etc. At times this has worked out really well, other times it’s not led to anything further, still other times it’s been a disaster. I don’t think that I’ve ever thought of anything as ‘sacrifice’ though, since this implies a sort of cost-benefit analysis of the best path which, to me anyway, is not obvious.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
This is a tough one, since there’s always a ‘but’. Maybe A. K. Ramanujan, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Virginia Woolf, Zenobia Camprubí, Lawrence Durrell, Juan Marín or Rabindranath Tagore in his ‘peripatetic litterateur’ moment.
I’d least like to be any of the numerous strident politicians who dedicate their time to insulting others, rather than improving existing conditions and expanding their inner life.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
Leopard-print robe, poems by Mirabai and Neruda, notebook, pen with ink.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
Every day I have a new favourite quote, usually speculative or observational rather than moralistic. This morning I read these lines in Will Eaves’s Murmur: ‘Perhaps the dream is not a result of suppression, or anything like that — but is itself a set of instructions, which makes possible the next bit of life.’
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
Alfredo Helsby’s mountains, trees, fields, lakes, gates and rainbows are luminous.
I also like classical Indian illustrations in which colour expresses different emotions. Just now, visiting the Dostoyevsky Wannabe editors in Manchester, I was looking through the 16th-century book Laur-Chand at the library. Inside there’s an illustration called ‘Chanda in her Bedchamber’, bright from a yellow pigment suffused with arsenic. It’s very beautiful.
When I’m writing I listen to a lot of classical ragas in which the same happens with tones. Art that evokes a specific mood state is, for me, powerful.